If your child has Autistic Spectrum Disorder you’ve probably developed strategies for helping them learn how to stay safe. Here are some practical steps you can take to keep them safe online.
Autistic Spectrum Disorder and the Internet
Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects how a child makes sense of the world, and how they relate to and communicate with others.
For children with ASD the internet can provide real opportunities for social interaction and learning as it removes some of the challenges of face to face communication.
Despite this, they can be additionally vulnerable to risks online. Communication and social interaction difficulties mean that young people with ASD may:
Struggle to distinguish fact from fiction. Many young people with ASD take things literally. Understanding the difference between fact and fiction is a vital skill when using the internet, where anybody can post content and it can be difficult for your child to determine whether it’s true or not.
Have difficulty in interpreting social cues. Many young people with ASD prefer interacting over a computer than face to face. Using social networks safely, however, can be particularly difficult for them as they may struggle to interpret online chat or spot the signs of abuse.
Be easily manipulated by others. It is common for people with ASD to develop obsessions or specialist knowledge in a particular topic as a way of helping them cope with everyday life. People with autism can develop many different obsessions but computers is one of the more common ones. This can increase their vulnerability to becoming involved in cybercrime and being exploited as a ‘computer hacker’ by others.
Many children with ASD struggle to interpret their own emotions and recognise risky situations. It’s important that you set clear boundaries for them online and communicate these in a way they will understand, clearly setting out what’s ok and what’s not ok.
What can I do to help keep my child safe?
As their parent or carer, you will understand what is normal for your child. The conversations you have with them and the boundaries you put in place will differ depending on how old they are, what their specific needs are and their technical proficiency.
As with all children you can use technical tools, such as internet filters and parental controls, to improve your child’s safety.
In addition, when talking to children with ASD about safety online there are some things you should emphasise.
Create a family contract. Decide as a family how your child can use the internet, when and for how long and write it down and/or draw pictures. Clearly displaying rules and boundaries will make it easier for your child to keep themselves safe.
Make sure they know how to get help. Tell them that they should speak with you or a trusted adult if someone asks them to do something for them or if something upsets or confuses them. Agree that if they receive an attachment that they will talk to you before they open it. Explore the Thinkuknow website together with your child to help develop your ongoing discussion and highlight how to report to CEOP. Making it a normal part of everyday conversation will help you ensure they know how to get help.
Continue the conversation with your child about how and why they use the internet and who their online friends are. Discovering the websites they enjoy and how they interact with others online, (for example on webcam or messaging) will help you to understand the risks they may face. Discuss the difference between ‘private’ and ‘public’.
If they use social media you should ensure that they know how to block other users and/or report to the service they use after telling you first. You can find out how to report to many popular social networks here.
The Thinkuknow film, ‘Know your friends with Josh and Sue’ has been specially developed for young people with mild/moderate/severe learning needs and explores a range of online issues in a format that is accessible for your child. You can watch the film here.
Mencap have produced a handy document, ‘Learning disabilities, Autism and Internet Safety: A Parent’s Guide’ which is free to download and contains lots of helpful tips on how you can keep your ASD child safe online.